Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2007

Charging a toll is the quickest, easiest way to finance a new, $350 million bridge over the Yadkin River on Interstate 85. State and local officials seem to be in agreement about that. But the toll plazas that would collect all that cash could jeopardize highway safety and bring more fumes from idling vehicles into our air. Is it worth that?
Some of us will be objecting to the proposed toll bridge long after it’s built. Resistance to change is a knee-jerk reaction. But if the goal of replacing the bridge is to improve safety, plopping a toll booth on the highway nearby looks counterproductive.
After a 2003 chain-reaction crash at an Illinois toll plaza killed several people ó eight of the 22 passengers on a bus bound for a garden tour ó National Transportation Safety Board officials declared toll plazas the most dangerous places on the highway and called for national design standards. Highway safety investigators shared these statistics in an April 2006 report:
– 49 percent of all interstate accidents in Illinois are at toll plazas, and three times as many people die in them as in accidents on the road itself.
– 30 percent of all accidents on the Pennsylvania toll highway system happen at toll plazas.
– 38 percent of all crashes on New Jersey toll highways are toll plaza accidents.
Introducing electronic toll collection devices that enable drivers to pass through more quickly exacerbates the problem. A study of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway system in Florida found that its already high accident rate ó 31.6 percent of total crashes occurred at the 10 main toll plazas ó actually got worse after the state installed the E-PASS system. Unfamiliar drivers get confused and stop, causing more rear-end collisions.
David Joyner, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, says a traffic and revenue study for a possible toll bridge in I-85 shows it would generate plenty of money, making it “highly bondable.” On the downside, he said, it could prompt as much as 20 percent of the interstate’s traffic to detour down U.S. 29 through the north edge of Spencer, turning at Andrews Street/Old Union Church Road, to avoid the toll. That might be good for business at the Bojangles on the corner, but the prospect of mingling local traffic with 3,200 trucks and some 10,000 other vehicles making a quick, toll-free dash through the neighborhood each day sounds like a monumental traffic hazard in itself.
Besides North Carolina, the only other state on the East Coast without toll roads is Connecticut. Ever wonder why? Connecticut abolished all its toll booths after a tractor-trailer rig plowed into cars at the Stratford toll plaza in 1983, killing seven and injuring many more. The horror must be fading as highway construction costs go up, though, because Connecticut is considering reinstating tolls.
Couple safety concerns with Rowan County’s ongoing air quality challenges, and the toll looks less and less like the smart way to go. The state needs to come up with $350 million somehow, but unless technology improves a great deal, installing tolls would worsen the situation, not improve it.